An Irishman's Diary
YOU’D NEVER sign a false confession would you? Not even if a hunched man shone a bright light in your eyes, his silhouette a giant against the tormenting walls of a deep underground bunker in Lithuania? Not if there were 40 other people in drab Soviet outfits facing the peeling patches of distemper and trembling just as much as those walls shiver with damp? Against the dark, your eyeball begins to swell with the direct wattage.
You are being shouted at in Russian. Nationality? “Irlanski,” you reply.
“I didn’t hear you, you crawling worm. What is your nationality?” he shouts back. “Irlanski!” The interrogator is frothing the foreign words straight into your face. You tell yourself that this is a weekend break, isn’t it? It’s all a game, right? But you’ve read too many adventure tales for boys and know all about being behind enemy lines. You must sneer in his face and resist. You fancy clearing your throat and spiting its parched remains straight into your inquisitioner’s eye, but you can’t. What do you instead? You stare at the grainy blank page ripped from a Soviet jotter, grimace and sign your name. The written confession is grabbed by the despot.
“Fleming? James Bond? Filthy spy!” he snarls.
You stare up at your persecutor, laughing in his histrionic face, determined to prove yourself the low-level hero of some formal cause.
But it all goes horribly wrong as suddenly the door flies open and a uniformed bruiser bursts in and drags you out. You cast a last look at your fellow captives. They tremble – but is it with laughter? you wonder – as you feel betrayed and are flung headlong into a darkened, uneven-floored room.
Inside you wait in blackness until the door is ripped violently open again and a stranger is flung in on top of you. You catch a glimpse of a face for the flicker of a second before darkness is sealed back into the room.
“What’s your name?” you ask. “Jonas.” “Where are you from?” “Vilnius,” he replies as you both begin to laugh. It feels like a reworking An Evil Cradling.
You are 25km outside the capital of Lithuania, in a massive underground bunker built by the Soviet forces to house a back-up television transmitter in the event of a nuclear attack by America. But that wasn’t in the cold war of the 1950s – it was in the early years of the 1980s.
The dense and deep structure was completed in 1984, just five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the third of five such bunkers constructed in then Soviet Union by a jumpy Moscow. Today, it houses the 1984 Survival Drama, a mixture of history lesson, living museum and group therapy.
For some two-and-a-half hours, along with about three dozen other participants, you can travel back to the Soviet era in an experience that is essentially Disneyland meets the KGB.
On arrival, you don grim anonymous quilted jackets. Then guards in Russian army uniforms with growling Alsatians bark at you to get out into the yard. A fine rain falls as you are forced to stand along a chalk line and number off. Your feet are kicked if you stand crookedly. A frail old man is picked out to hoist the Russian flag as the muscular anthem blares out. And then you are frog-marched down into the 4,000 cubic metre, multilevel bunker.
While the experience sometimes teeters on the verge of pantomime, there are genuinely unsettling moments.
When one of the group is yelled at and belittled for having difficulty in putting on her gas mask, several of us chortle nervously behind the safety of our own masks. We are then all forced to run through corridors wearing these suffocating, sweat-drawing masks, dragging thin breaths through the musty filter as the guard dog gnashes its teeth.
An English man in his 60s falls to the ground, smashing his wristwatch in an accidental taste of recreated bullying state control. But never forget, you’re here by choice: it’s weird entertainment.
Survivor of Nazi and Soviet invasions (the city has a chillingly titled Museum of Genocide, housed in the former KGB headquarters), Vilnius itself is rather beautiful and its old town sector sits on the Unesco World Heritage List. Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings make its streets very pleasant on the eye. There is an air of confidence in its well-dressed people, one that has grown since the Soviet withdrawal in 1991 and Lithuania’s subsequent accession to the EU in 2004.
Back in the bunker and at the end of the interactive “psychodrama”, you feel like a bit-part actor in some feat of survival. As you sit at a long table with your fellow players, you are allowed tuck into a can of dogfood-like meat and lower a glass of rough vodka. As the remarkable afternoon draws to a time-warped close, you all applaud each other as you are each awarded a certificate of endurance with your name on it.
The Soviet psychodrama event is remarkable. Directed by an experienced TV and stage artist, it is one of Europe’s oddest afternoon experiences.
“We devised the experience as a cure for people’s nostalgia for the Soviet era,” the dramatist tells me. Nervous laughter ensues. Fade to black.